Baja California tour operator Turista Libre regularly offers a couple of enticing Tijuana excursions that allow visitors to experience a gastronomic sampling of ethnic foods or, if they prefer, a close-up look at the U.S.-Mexico border itself, including prototypes for President Trump’s hoped-for border wall.
Trouble is, there are few, if any, takers these days for the weekend tours, which sell for about $60.
As news of growing tension surrounding the migrant crisis in Tijuana builds and fears of potential border crossing shutdowns persist, tourism in Baja California is taking a big hit.
Getting a table at popular celebrity chef-helmed restaurants is not a problem, occupancies at hotels from Tijuana to Ensenada are tumbling, and doctor and dentist offices that rely heavily on San Diego-area patients are reporting cancellations that have led to a drop-off in medical tourism business of as high as 70%.
“What we’ve been experiencing is on par with the rest of the businesses across the border, about a 50% to 60% decrease since the caravans [from Central America] began arriving and since it’s been front and center,” said Derrik Chinn, who started Turista Libre about a decade ago.
Among visitors’ greatest fears, say the owners of tourist-friendly businesses, are potentially huge delays at border crossings or being trapped in Mexico should there be another hours-long shutdown at the border like the one that occurred late last month at the San Ysidro crossing.
A tweet at the time by Trump threatening more border shutdowns because of asylum-seeking migrants has only exacerbated fears.
Though Baja California is returning to record levels of tourism, the latest short-term slump is a reminder that the region is not invulnerable to outside forces, most notably the violent criminal activity that has previously dampened visitation to Mexico.
Just a week ago, two San Diego teenagers were killed execution-style in a triple homicide at a Tijuana apartment complex in a neighborhood known to be a high-crime area.
Baja California is coming off two of its most successful years for tourism, said Ives Lelevier, undersecretary of tourism for the region. Last year the state welcomed 27 million visitors, he said, up from 25 million the year before.
But news of the waves of Honduran immigrants has depressed hotel occupancies, with rates down an average of 16% for Baja California over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the tourism ministry.
“What we’ve been doing for the last 10 days is providing visitors with information on our website on what’s going on with the border crossings and the airports,” Lelevier said. “Sometimes people don’t have the proper perspective, and it is difficult for them to know it’s a very specific part of the city where the migrants are, and that the rest of the city is business as usual.”
Antonio Gamboa, owner of a well-known food truck park in Tijuana, said you would never know there are thousands of migrants encamped in the city if you were to visit his Telefonica Gastro Park, yet business there is down 30%.
“It’s very disappointing because everything is normal in Tijuana, and it’s a very isolated area where the migrants are,” Gamboa said.
Well-known restaurateur and chef Javier Plascencia has seen holiday party cancellations at his signature gourmet restaurant, Mision 19, and slowing business at his family’s most popular eatery, Caesar’s, where open tables are a rarity. Both restaurants are in Tijuana.
Two small boutique hotels that Plascencia runs in the Valle de Guadalupe wine region, however, remain unaffected, he says, by what is going on at the Tijuana border.
Meanwhile, the Rosarito Beach Hotel, long popular with Baja California-bound American tourists, has seen its business plummet by 60%, said owner Hugo Torres.
“We’re sending word that everything is back to normal as far as crossing the border, but we cannot guarantee [a closure] won’t happen again,” Torres said. “Mexicans are going across [to San Diego] like crazy for the specials at Macy’s and other stores, so for the businessmen in San Diego it’s back to normal 100%.
“But we are suffering. People are afraid to come over and get trapped going home.”
That apparently is also the thinking behind many of the cancellations that medical offices have seen in recent weeks.
In order to make up for lost business as patients cancel consultations and surgeries, members of Tijuana’s main medical association announced Friday they would be offering discounts and benefits for local and U.S. patients. The group also plans to connect with tourism authorities on both sides of the border to secure additional discounts in restaurants and hotels in Tijuana and other Baja California municipalities.
Georgina Carabarin, a Tijuana prosthodontist, said she has seen a significant decline in her business since the arrival of Central American migrants. As many as 70% of her patients come from San Diego, she said.
“Right now, we’re hoping everything goes back to normal,” she said. “On the news, they keep saying there are more people coming, so some patients are saying, ‘Let’s wait for the situation to cool down and then we’ll set up another appointment later.’ ”
Weisberg writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.